McLeod’s Daughters Review: Television Writers and Crimes Against Storytelling

We interrupt our series of articles on how to save money in a recession to bring you this important article on why I hate TV.

It’s not that I don’t watch TV, because I do (too much). It’s just that television has the ability to let you down harder than any other medium. You can be totally in love with a show and then it’ll take a left turn on 5th and Stupid and suddenly the whole world it created for you is ruined, retroactively destroying your enjoyment of what came before it because you know what’s going to happen later on.

Greedy executives who won’t let a story die a natural death are the guns to the heads of TV writers, who are forced to commit atrocious crimes against storytelling to keep the money rolling in.

I’ll use the Australian drama McLeod’s Daughters

…as my example, because if you’ve been reading through my old blog entries you already know my feelings about Star Trek: Enterprise.

This shouldn’t be a problem for anyone, because the material I cite was released in 2004 and approximately zero other people I know have ever heard of the show. But just in case:

WARNING! Spoilers up until the end of the end of the 3rd season of McLeod’s Daughters

From the instant I watched my first episode, I loved McLeod’s Daughters. It’s about five women running a cattle and sheep station in rural South Australia. The two main characters, estranged sisters Claire (Lisa Chappel) and Tess (Bridie Carter)…

Tess and Claire

…inherit the family farm (Drover’s Run) from their father and struggle both to rebuild their relationship and keep the farm going. Tomboy Claire grew up on the land, riding horses, wearing plaid shirts, jeans, boots, and cowboy hats and proving herself alongside men while Tess was raised in the city with dresses, heels, and a lot of cappuccino.

Together with housekeeper/mother figure Meg (Sonia Todd), her flighty yet loyal daughter Jodi (Rachael Carpani), and Becky (Jessica Napier), a troubled girl from a broken home, they manage thousands of acres.

Claire, Tess, Meg, Becky, and Jodi: girl power icons.

Best mates and love interests come in the form of Alex Ryan (Aaron Jeffery) and Nick Ryan (Myles Pollard), the literal boys from next door, which rounds out the cast for the first three seasons.

Nick and Alex, the boys of Killarney

During these three seasons the writers (I won’t name them all, but their leaders are Posie Graeme-Evans and Caroline Stanton) let the story develop organically, with plot problems and accompanying solutions stemming from the harsh yet beautiful landscape…

which, incidentally, is great for camping

… and the interpersonal character conflicts stemming from the characters themselves, who have issues with their parents, commitment, fear of rejection, etc.

The result is riveting. Coming from a not-so-rural Canadian background, I found everything to do with the farm and the land and what it means to be Australian fascinating. There’s even a helicopter! (or rather, about six different ones standing in for the same one, which I probably wasn’t supposed to notice)

The characters lives and accents were completely different from mine, but their reactions and feelings were so universally relatable that the show sucked me right in. Even with work and everything I was blowing through about eight episodes a day.

I learned about cattle drenching, sheep shearing, and horseback riding.

and also how not to fall off of windmills

I cheered for best mates Claire and Alex as they stumbled hilariously around each other, never quite realizing they’d been in love for the better part of their lives..

blowing up a tree stump: how cute are they??

… and for Tess and Nick, the love-at-first-sight soul mates who were afraid of the strength of their own feelings.

Nick and Tess: also very adorable

With a setup like this, they could have gone on forever, and I would have been with them every step of the way, because the actors sold it so well.

But then Lisa Chappell wanted to leave the show.

I would argue, that since the show is called McLeod’s Daughters and revolves around the two sisters, without Claire the story could not go on, and should be allowed to die a natural death.

rest undisturbed, show

The Nine Network was raking in money, however, so I guess this option was never even on the table. When networks decide to keep a show going in the absence of a cast member, the writers have only two options:

1) write said character out of the show by having them die or move away
2) swap out the actor playing the character and continue on as if nothing has happened

In a landmark move that should have earned them a nomination for “worst crime against storytelling by a television writing department” (if there was such an award), the writers of McLeod’s Daughters decided to do BOTH.

this is definitely an award that needs to be made

Before they did, however, the writers needed to get Claire and Alex together or they would risk lynching at the hands of their own fans. The result was a bit abrupt (going to Melbourne together on business didn’t feel big enough to be a realization trigger) but it was sweet nonetheless.

As lifelong best mates and now a couple, the writers sell their romance to us as a life-changing, “love of their lives” pairing that could not be subsequently replicated for either of them.

kissing each other only makes them more adorable

Enter Stevie (Simmone MacKinnon), Claire’s replacement.

hey, look at me, I’m just like Claire, except not awesome and I have a lot of shoes

She saunters onto the show one episode before Claire’s death and insinuates herself into everyone’s lives, setting herself up as “the next Claire” before Claire has even gone anywhere. As a storytelling device, it’s got all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. They couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d done a public service announcement: ATTENTION EVERYONE, CLAIRE IS GOING TO DIE, AND IN THAT EVENT, WILL EVERYONE PLEASE TAKE ONE STEP TO THE LEFT AND KEEP GOING.

The fact that Claire greets her as a best mate (that she’s never mentioned before) is strange and unsettling.

buddy! replacement! usurper of my life!

Stevie immediately starts foreshadow-flirting with Alex, whom the writers have spent the last three years convincing us is made for Claire and Claire alone (the soundtrack song for when Claire and Alex get together goes “you know I love you, always have and always will” for crying out loud). The fact that they do this at all and that Alex not only lets her but gives her the same smile he gives Claire, makes me want to puke.

excuse me, but I need to pull your face off now, Stevie

I don’t dispute for the show to continue, Claire had to die rather than move away, because Claire was so tied to the land that a move would have been out of character. What ruins it is that when the inevitable death scene arrives, it’s not so much tragic as contrived. The actors sell it as best as they can…

Sob! I love you!

…but the whole setup smells too much like the product of a list of requirements brainstormed in the writer’s room:

“Well, we need it to be tragic, so we’ll have Alex lay her engagement ring on her pillow to find when she comes home, but she never gets there. And we’ll need to give her time to say goodbye, so it can’t be sudden. But it can’t be too drawn out because we only have two episodes left. And Tess and the baby should be there so they can get all emotional. But they can’t be killed because we’ve still got Bridie Carter under contract.

So… they hit a pothole and end up hanging off a cliff in the truck? Yes! Good! Oh, but we haven’t seen any cliffs on the show before… oh never mind. There’s just a cliff, okay? So Tess and the baby get out but… um… Claire just doesn’t? Oh! I know, her foot is stuck! Yeah! Good.”

“oh! and make sure the truck slides over gradually, like the Grinch’s sled”

They had already done the whole “killed on the eve of engagement” thing (better, and in the same season) with Becky’s boyfriend Brick (Fletcher Humphrys), but I guess they forgot about that.

Contrived or not, it wasn’t a deal breaker. I could have stayed behind the show afterward. After all, I still liked Nick and Tess, and Alex hadn’t gone anywhere. Becky had moved away with her new boyfriend Jake (Charlie Clausen) — in a way that was organic to the story, no less, so I don’t understand why they bungled this exit so badly — but Jodi and Meg were still around.

So I watched “The Long Goodbye,” where everyone deals with their grief in the runup to the funeral. That’s when the deal was broken.

Claire’s funeral: with horses, of course

Tess talks to her sister’s ghost as she obsesses over the accident while Alex goes off hunting the brumbie (wild horse) he blames for Claire’s death.

“Tess, stop obsessing. The 200ft drop wasn’t really that bad.”

The story might have been better served by having Alex die along with her, but Aaron Jeffery was the most popular actor on Australian TV at that point…

like Tess’s friend Briony says: “he’s like all the four wheel drive ads rolled into one”

…so there was no way they’d kill him off unless he asked for it. Barring that, his character and the depth of his tragedy should have made it unlikely that he’d never find or even want love again, but this being a relationship drama they couldn’t do that either.

If they wanted us to get behind Alex having a love life again, he (like the viewers) should have been left some breathing space to come to terms with Claire’s death alone. Help from platonic pals like Nick and Tess is acceptable, but we need to feel the hole in his life where Claire had been for a while before we can consent to it potentially being filled again.

like Tess said one time: “when you love someone like that, you don’t just stop loving them”

Instead, the writers foist Stevie off on us and Alex, having her follow him out into the bush to counsel him and further insinuate herself into Claire’s place. It made my blood boil. I didn’t like Stevie to begin with, I thought she was annoying and sleazy, but now I hate her. The only way I could continue to watch would be if she went away post haste.

“Too bad! Look! I’m Tess’s new sister!”

But a quick look at the episode summaries for the following seasons revealed that Stevie sticks around even longer than Claire, and ends up marrying Alex. And as if that wasn’t enough, the writers apparently also decided to abandon their organic approach to plot at this point.

You would think that the trials and tribulations of Australian bush life: droughts, floods, storms, shearing, mustering, bank debts, cattle sales, horse breeding, riding, camping, diseases, pest infestations of kangaroos, emus, rabbits, and weeds, and of course the dangerous machinery and threat of bushfire, would be enough material to fuel about 200 years of television.

moo and stuff

But no, instead of letting the problems arise from within the world they created, the writers start trucking issues in from outside – mysterious strangers with “shocking secrets” (usually involving love children), hitmen, kidnapping, toxic waste, murder, and a revolving door of “barrier” love interests to keep the end game from happening too soon – turning the show into a soap opera.

This put off more of the original actors, so they had to write in more contrived exits and replacements, sending the quality of the show spiraling out of control.

before you know it, it’s a cast of strangers

According to Wikipedia, by the time Aaron Jeffery left in Season 7 most people in Australia agreed that the show had “jumped the shark.” When I read that, I laughed, because the show had been ruined long before then, but somehow nobody had noticed.

too busy texting, perhaps?

So what could I, the viewer, do to cope with such an unforgivable betrayal? I used a process I discovered after the Star Trek Enterprise fiasco, which I shall call REVISIONIST HISTORY.

It goes like this. I re-watched the bits up to when Claire would have died, but stopped playback before the accident. So Stevie never comes back and Claire returns safely to the farm to find Alex’s ring.

ALEX: I sure am glad you didn’t drive over a cliff today, Claire.
CLAIRE: Me too, Alex. Me too.

I re-wrote the end of that season so that it became the end of the series. The last two episodes I wiped away and turned into a two hour telemovie that goes like this:

Alex and Claire are preparing for their wedding at Drover’s Run. The revenge-prone Sandra Kinella (Inge Hornstra) — girlfriend of the Ryan boys’ father, Harry — feels jilted when his wife returns (they spit up earlier in the season) so she sets a fire on his property which quickly spreads into a bushfire that affects both Drover’s Run and the Ryan boys’ farm, Wilgul.

as we saw earlier this year, bushfires are deadly and dramatic: perfect for a film

Everyone, including Becky and Jake who return to help out, has to come together with the CFS (Country Fire Service) to fight it, giving Jodi the chance to hook up with her CFS buddy Toby Frye (Diarmid Heidenreich). Nick and Tess have a close call which makes them get over themselves and admit they love each other. They manage to put the fire out, saving the properties for the most part, but the wedding setup and the grass the cattle need to eat are ruined.

picture this, but burntier

So everyone gets together to muster their starving stock cross country and save their livelihoods. When they make camp at night Alex and Claire get married, with no fancy stuff, just their mates there to watch and their usual dirty cowboy clothes to wear. Muster successful, Sandra goes to jail and they all agree to work together to rebuild what they lost (with some help from insurance payouts, obviously).

Through a series of snapshots that accompany the credits, we could see the work being completed, the fancy wedding of Nick and Tess, Nick and Tess and Alex and Claire with their kids on family outings involving the bush and horses, and at the end, one photo of the whole group together (like from Christmas or something).

like this plus Jake, Meg’s husband Terry (John Jarratt), and a pile of kids

It’s not a happy ending per se, they’ll still have their problems. We just leave them to continue to live their lives without us. Isn’t that better than half the original characters ending up dead in their 30s and the other half moving to Argentina?

Revising the history of the show does exorcise the demons, so to speak, but the resulting teleplay (yes, there is a resulting teleplay, I am a huge nerd) isn’t good for anything and it sucked up a couple days I should have been using to do actual work. Unfortunately, I’ll probably have to do it again because you can’t trust TV writers to stay true even to their own world.

Sigh. Maybe I should stick to watching movies.

Buy the Good Seasons on McLeod’s Daughters

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11 Responses to McLeod’s Daughters Review: Television Writers and Crimes Against Storytelling

Commented:  26 October 2009 at 19:21()

Kat, Kat, Kat… I must say that I agree with you that TV shows can, with no sudden warning, turn to shit on us. I’ve seen it happen before but for some reason the only shows I can think of at the moment are The O.C. around season 3 and Grey’s Anatomy around season 3 or 4. Not sure which season, I just remember it being the season with the 3 part episode where Meridith drowns and almost dies. I bring Grey’s up because the first two seasons of that show were amazing. One of the best on TV but then season 3 dipped a bit and that 3 parter came up. And, there was no way that story arc had to be done over 3 episodes and the show creator even said as much but when she told the studio how expensive the episode would be, they demanded it be stretched over 3 episodes. Not over 2, how it was originally intended to be done. There’s a reason why studio execs stay away from the writer’s room and vice versa. But they just can’t help themselves. It’s like when you go to a party and you mention you’re a writer to some stranger and they always reply with, “oh, boy, do I got some stories you can write about.” And, of course their stories, not to be rude, suck. Of course, our stories aren’t that much better either, really. Execs are like that except they have the ability to make sure you stay on the air. I, mean, really, who thought it was a good idea to give Jay Leno a 10 p.m. show? Definitely not a smart person.

This may seem a bit negative and it is. There is no worse feeling than when one of your favourite television shows takes a left turn, as you said, and heads to sucksville. Breaking up with a TV show is no fun.

However, I am here to bring the positives. We are currently in a golden age of television. I try to tell everyone this when they say TV sucks. TV doesn’t suck, I tell them. You suck for not watching the right shows.

For example, Dexter, Mad Men, Chuck, Brothers and Sisters, How I Met Your Mother, Sons of Anarchy, Being Erica, Friday Night Lights, Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, 30 Rock, Breaking Bad, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia…

And of course there are so many more, not to mention how in the past few years we have seen the end of The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Shield. Each one of those considered some of the greatest television programmes (that’s how they spell it in Britain) (or so I’ve been led to believe) in the history of TV.

So, when a show like McLeod’s Daughters starts to deteriorate, say your goodbye’s and watch something else. And let’s face it, most shows are never as creatively good in the latter part, only a few can keep their creative juices at top levels over several years.

Also, who knows, maybe McLeod’s Daughters will make a comeback. I’ve been told Grey’s Anatomy is good again. But won’t go back though. I gave it a second chance once before and was hoodwinked back into the crap. But, The O.C. did return for a brief 4th season that was a whole lot better.

Don’t leave TV for the movies, Kat. Stick it out and start watching some of those shows I mentioned, if you don’t.

Meg Han Solo, is that you?

I feel you re: the O.C. and Grey’s. I still watch Grey’s even though it’s only okay but I got bored of the O.C. after only like 5 episodes. I haven’t seen Leno’s new show.

I agree the quality can go down and come back up again, but that won’t happen here. McLeod’s Daughters ended last year. Apparently it was a mercy killing. I read the episodes summaries from seasons 4-8 and it went from dumb to ridiculous to just plain appalling.

I’ve seen some of the shows you mention and while I would agree that they are good, I don’t like them, if that makes any sense.

I’m opposed to TV not because of overall quality (there have been amazing shows that stayed amazing) but because of the potential of superbad letdown. I mean, if you see a bad movie, it’s two hours and you can forget about it. It’s not like it’ll be great for the first half, then one of the actors will get up and leave in the middle and it sucks afterward.

It’s hard to say goodbye to McLeod’s and watch something else because I loved those characters SOOO much 🙁 but I had to. I couldn’t keep watching. That would be like torture.

Helen D
Commented:  5 March 2013 at 15:03()

Just read your blog (I only discovered McLeod’s Daughters a month or so ago on Netflix. Was so bummed when Claire died that I had to Google to see why she was written out. Was disappointed to see that Lisa wanted to leave. Couldn’t stand Sandra or Stevie. Probably won’t watch any more. However, I was kind of looking forward to Season 6 & seeing Matt Passmore since I had recently watched 2 seasons of The Glades & really liked. Maybe I’ll skip ahead! If you want to see a good show that was taken off the air way too soon, try A Gifted Man. Another show I loved.

Commented:  20 March 2013 at 18:31()

Do you know what the brand of pants “Tess” wore on Mcleods Daughters? I just love them and hope I can find them in the States. Thanks

Katrina Nicholson
Commented:  25 March 2013 at 14:58()

Sorry I have no idea!

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  • just read this after i did a google search with the question “is McLoed’s daughters shit in season 7?” and your blog came up. I had decided way back that it had gone to the dogs and watched in dismay like a junkie as it got worse. I’m in season 7 now and actually its just to painful to watch. My brain is dying and my eyes ready to bleed at the sheer nonsense that’s appearing on my screen. I too am disgusted the big wigs allowed a great story and show end this way.

    Katrina Nicholson
    Commented:  3 June 2014 at 11:45()

    I hear you. It’s another case of a network not letting a good show retire gracefully before it runs out of (non-stupid) ideas.

    I completed agree! What was a good show was completely ruined. Turned from interesting drama to soap opera. The complete seasons are on Hulu here in the US and I am late to seeing this show Recently got through half of the seasons, seeing the decline of the story writing, starting skipping through, and finally was reading just the synopses. Very sad indeed. The writers of this show are more tragic than the characters in the show who should have left the show early and wrapped the entire series up in half the time.

    I have watched over the years many exceptional Australian movies thinking WOW what a great tv series. NOT!

    Katrina Nicholson
    Commented:  19 June 2014 at 16:15()

    That’s so funny – that’s the same thing I did. I started out watching the show and then when it got silly I switched to episode recaps to see if I was missing anything good… but it mostly just made me glad I didn’t keep watching.

    Commented:  20 June 2014 at 16:57()

    Your review is so great! I’ve just gotten to the beginning of Season 4 and am SO disappointed in the direction things are now going. In everything I’ve read about Claire’s death, no one has mentioned the sudden appearance of the mysterious death cliff! So much scenery in this show, and there was NEVER any cliff around! so dumb. Then, after Claire died, NO ONE is talking about her AT ALL. It’s like she never existed! Do the writers think that the viewers will forget about her if she isn’t mentioned. duh. The first mention of her is in Ep. 8, when Alex tells his first gf that he is still affected by Claire’s death. If the writers had had that season revolve around every one coming to terms with her death, the show might have been more genuine and had a chance.

    Claire and Tess were the heart of the show. The first 3 seasons were wonderful. Oh well… should be a master class in how to take something wonderful and squeeze the life out of it. Embarrassing, but I guess they made a lot of money out of it.


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